Thursday, May 05, 2005


My Secret Agenda

Apparently, I have a secret agenda. (If you talk to enough people, I have many.) I know this because my faculty keep saying so. If I ever forget my secret agenda, all I have to do is ask.

This week a tenured professor told me, without the least self-doubt, that “the administration” (whatever that is) has a secret agenda to abolish his department. This came as news to me, since I keep pouring money into his department, but he was quite sure. The Administration, which is somehow both omnipotent and incompetent at the same time, must be up to no good, and must be stashing money away somewhere, since we aren’t buying goodies at quite the pace he believes would be appropriate.

How, exactly, should one respond to this?

Denial doesn’t work, obviously. Incredulity is taken as an affront. The most effective approach I’ve found so far is Socratic questioning. I want to abolish your department? Why do you think that? Why would I want to do that? What would I gain by doing that? How the hell did you get that?

His use of the third person was, I assume, an effort at tact, since the only alternative would have been direct accusation. My college has admirably few administrators, pouring what resources it does have mostly into instruction, so even by the most generous interpretation, this amounted to a personal attack. I wasn’t hurt by it – learning to depersonalize these things is one of the basic survival skills of this job – but I was perplexed at the certainty with which he said it. He didn’t preface it with “Everybody knows,” but that was the tone and implication.

Charges like these (from various parts of the college) come in about monthly. The Administration (picture the Death Star) harbors a Secret Plan to divert resources from (fill in the blank) to fund Someone’s Pet Project (picture an apartment on the Seine). These charges are nearly always leveled with perfect certainty.

As an educator, this disturbs me. The people who are supposed to instill critical thinking skills in our students are utterly free of critical thought in their own backyards.

Some of it is probably an outgrowth of union rhetoric – rallying the troops is easier when The Enemy is pure evil. To the extent that it’s just demagoguery, I’m inclined to let it slide. But addressing it to me directly isn’t rallying the troops – the troops weren’t there to hear it, and I’m The Enemy.

Conspiracy theories are flawed on many levels, not the least of which is that it puts the alleged victim of the conspiracy at the center of the universe. If the entire college is aligned to ‘get’ one department or one person, that department or person must be awfully important. In truth, most aren’t.

I try to write off much of the secret agenda talk to provincialism. Many professors don’t look beyond their own departments, so they don’t know how the dots are actually connected. To their credit, when I question how some of my accusers reach their conclusions, they fold pretty quickly. Still, it’s annoying to be told, with anger and conviction, what I Really Think.

Not to mention that you are holding back funds that would allow them all to get the raises that they deserve, rather than the pitiful amount you might be given to spread among too many deserving individuals.
Actually, I catch a break on that. Raises here are negotiated by the union, so they're across the board, completely independent of performance. While I have a moral issue with separating pay from performance, it does, at least, spare me the headache of explaining differential raises.

Odd, that a union would lift a burden from management like that. Managers of the world, unite!
As your attorney, I advise you to buy a Darth Vader helmet and carry it to all meetings w/faculty. Then when someone makes an oblique accusation, you can pop it on your head, but carry on the conversation as you normally would -- that is, you pretend you're *not* wearing it -- although with the addition of the asthma sound effect while they're talking.

The cognitive dissonance would unnerve your antagonist, and put a small element of personal satisfaction into your moment.

And if you haven't already, read Straight Man by Richard Russo.
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